75 Years of the Chicago Subway

Photo: A train of 4000-series cars stops at Clark/Division in April 1943 on an official "inspection trip," showing guests progress on the subway's construction months before its completion and official opening in October.

We're celebrating the 75th anniversary of the opening of the State Street Subway, Chicago's first underground rapid transit line!


Jump to: Subway train rides event information 
Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, we have needed to cancel today's train rides event. We deeply regret and sincerely apologize for this inconvenience.


The 4.9-mile State Street Subway opened to the public on October 17, 1943 providing fast, comfortable service with modern, streamlined station designs featuring a number of amenities not common yet in other cities' subways to make it a pleasant experience for Chicagoans.

A modern design

Stations were made in the Art Moderne (or "Streamline Moderne") architectural style, one which evolved in the 1930s from the Art Deco style, doing away with some of the ornamentation of Art Deco and had simplified shapes, long horizontal attributes and curving forms.

Stations featured bright fluorescent lighting (said to be the first for a subway system anywhere); interiors were finished with light grey glazed tiles in the entry areas and off-white terra cotta at platform level with station names and wayfinding cues embedded or integrated into the tilework at various locations throughout stations.

The subway system itself heralded "Five Star Features" including ventilation, signals, drainage, illumination and escalators.


This first subway line was intended to be part of two initial subway routes, to be expanded, later. It, and its Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway peer, were largely dug at the same time—though the latter didn't open until 1951, being finished after World War II.

Chicago broke ground for the new subways at the corner of Chicago and State on Saturday, December 17, 1938. Federal funding through President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs during the Great Depression made the project possible. Some local funding was also used and the project's design and construction was managed by the Chicago Department of Subways and Superhighways (a partial predecessor to today's Chicago Department of Transportation, or CDOT).

The subway was mainly constructed using the deep bore method, where tubes were dug in the earth below surface level and reinforced with concrete. Though some sections were more manually dug—by hand with u-shaped, mechanically assisted knives—much of the tubes were bored using 25' metal shields (nicknamed "biscuit cutters" due to their visual and functional resemblance to the common kitchen tool) pushed hydraulically forward through the clay.

With each push forward of the biscuit cutter, "muckers" (a nickname for the people mining out the wet, mucky earth for the subway) would lift out hunks of heavy, wet clay to then be hauled away by cart as the biscuit cutter would push forward and a ring of iron lining would be constructed to hold up the earth around the tube. Soon thereafter, an inner lining of reinforced concrete for the highest safety.

To cross under the river, a 200-foot-long steel and concrete tube was constructed at a South Chicago shipyard. It was floated to downtown via Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, sunk into a trench in the riverbed and then connected at its ends to the bored tube and tunnel system.

The subway tunnels toward the end of each subway route (as they climbed up to the surface for track connections to existing elevated lines), crossover track areas and station mezzanine areas were constructed using the "cut-and-cover" method, where a trench is dug out from the surface and covered back over. (You can see this shape of tunnel in the Roosevelt station.)


After five years of construction, Chicago's first subway was ready for operation. The city staged a celebration for the opening of the State Street Subway on October 16, 1943. Celebrations were held throughout the subway and at 10:47am, Mayor Kelly cut a ceremonial red, white, and blue ribbon strung across the northbound track, officially giving the new subway to the city.

The State Street Subway officially opened for revenue service after midnight on October 17, 1943 using 4000-series cars (two of which we keep in our Heritage Fleet), which had steel bodies instead of older cars with wood bodies, for added safety.

Though service between various North Side and South Side branches were already interlined, subway service supplemented the through-routings, with some trains operating via elevated or subway between the North and South Sides via downtown.

Map of Initial System of Subways

The south portal of the subway was initially just south of the Roosevelt station at about 13th Street with an incline that connected directly to the South Side Main Line (part of today's Green Line) and remained part of the system's North-South Route (Howard-Englewood-Jackson Park service) until the early 1990s.

In 1992, a new subway connection to the Dan Ryan Line was completed and, in 1993, activated in anticipation of the opening of the Orange Line to Midway. When the new connection opened, the 'L' system's South Side alignments were swapped, forming two new routings: across the system, the now-familiar Howard-Dan Ryan "Red Line", via State Street Subway, and the all-elevated Lake-Englewood-Jackson Park "Green Line", via the north and east legs of the Loop 'L'.

The original portal and incline at 13th are maintained and still part of the CTA system, though only infrequently used by in-service trains (except, temporarily, by Red Line trains to Ashland/63rd, which follow the original routing of trains from the North Side through the subway onto the South Side 'L').

The State Street Subway (and the new subway connection to the Dan Ryan Line) remains in service 24/7, year round, as part of our Red Line route.


Celebrate with us!

We encourage you to enjoy a self-guided “subway crawl” tour of historic photos, which will remain up for several weeks. Archival images have been hung in the paid areas of each of the State Street Subway’s nine stations and customers are invited to visit the mezzanine level of each station to see more than 20 historic photos placed throughout the subway system.

A photo from the first inspection trip on steel-bodied 4000-series cars in the subway.

Anniversary event

Due to unforeseen circumstances, we have needed to cancel today's train rides event. We deeply regret and sincerely apologize for this inconvenience.

System status snapshot
‘L’ route status
Red Line
Normal Service
Blue Line
Normal Service
Brown Line
Normal Service
Green Line
Normal Service
Orange Line
Normal Service
Pink Line
Normal Service
Purple Line
Normal Service
Yellow Line
Normal Service
Bus routes w/alerts
Elevator alerts